Adventures in making the "Four Emperors" book trailer

I created a book trailer for FOUR EMPERORS, a fun supernatural mystery-slash-gay romance that I wrote and published with my company, Luft Books, under the pen name Evan Allen. This is my first-ever book trailer; I made it on a budget of, ahem, zero dollars, excluding whatever I spent on nifty swag to send to four of my friends to thank them for lending their vocal talents to the soundtrack. In case anybody is interested in making a trailer this way, here’s an overview of my process, mistakes and all:

In creating this, I used four software programs: Adobe Photoshop, PowerPoint, Movie Maker, and Audacity. If you have Microsoft Office, you already have PowerPoint. Audacity is completely free (and awesome); Movie Maker is included with Windows Essentials, so if you have Windows, you either have it already, or can download it for free. Photoshop is most definitely not free, but if you don’t have it, there are a bunch of free alternatives.

I knew from the start that I wouldn’t need to shoot any footage. I envisioned this as just a series of text-heavy images sliding together to tell a story. In some ways this made it much easier, and in some ways it made it pretty elaborate and time-consuming. First up, I put together a detailed shooting script, with separate columns for the on-screen text, the visuals, and the audio. Like so:

The shooting script was crucial for keeping myself organized throughout the process.

Next, I created all my stills in Photoshop. For a video that clocks in at under two minutes, I made over eighty stills. This took a while, but many of the stills were just slight variations on other stills, so it wasn’t nearly as onerous as it sounds. I built all my images at 1024 x 768 pixels (4:3 aspect ratio), because that’s a nice, common display resolution; next time I do this, I’ll probably build them at 1280 x 720 instead, because as it turns out, YouTube uses a 16:9 aspect ratio. Which is something I might’ve checked before plunging in! As it is, the trailer shows up on YouTube with black bars at the sides to make it fit the screen. I can live with that.

This is what it looks like on YouTube. The black bars at the sides appear because my aspect ratio isn’t a match for YouTube’s.

I did the Chinese brushwork myself, by the way. Painted it, photographed it, Photoshopped it. I had three years of Japanese language lessons in high school, which included a yearly unit on calligraphy; I’m delighted to find this knowledge finally came in handy in everyday life.

Once I had all my stills, which I saved in .jpg format, I added each still, in the correct order, as a slide in a single PowerPoint presentation.

After that was done, the trickiest part of this stage was timing the transitions between each slide. PowerPoint offers a handful of snazzy transition effects (checkerboards! ripples! glitter!), but for my purposes, I used straight cuts (no transition effects, in other words) interspersed with a few strategic fades. I used a stopwatch to time myself reading the narration and dialogue aloud, which gave me a good ballpark figure for how long to stay on each slide, but there was a lot of trial-and-error involved. From PowerPoint’s Transitions menu, I input the correct time to linger on each slide, bearing in mind that any time I’d use a fade, the transition would add an extra 0.70 seconds, which I’d have to factor into the final calculations.

For example, the slide shown below appears on the screen while someone delivers this bit of dialogue: “You were strangling to death on your own blood from a sword to the throat.” I wanted it to be wedged tightly, almost to the point of overlapping, between two other snippets of dialogue (“It was hard to shake the feeling that my personal life was getting sloppy” and “I’m going to kiss you now, okay?”). I timed myself briskly reading that line in just under three seconds. There’s a fade, which adds 0.70 seconds. So I set the time to linger on the slide before advancing at 00:02.20, with the duration of the transition automatically set at 0.70 seconds, which meant the total time on this slide would be 00:02:90 seconds, which seemed just about right.

When I was all done with timing it, I had a slideshow presentation that looked pretty much exactly how I wanted my trailer to look, minus the audio track and the end credits. Under “Save & Send” in PowerPoint, I clicked “Create a Video”, which saved it as a .wmv video file.

Next up: The audio track! I sent out feelers to a group of friends with experience doing this sort of thing, asking if they’d be interested in some simple voice-over work. All four of my voice actors submitted their audio remotely—Heather lives in Los Angeles, Matt lives in Kansas City, Shawn lives in Spokane, and Morgan Dodge lives in the Bay Area. Either I’d have them record their lines separately and email or Dropbox me the .mp3 or .wav files, or I’d just have them call a Google Voice number set up for this purpose and read off their lines into a voicemail message, which I’d then download as an .mp3. Google Voice ended up being more erratic in quality—as is the nature of phone audio, sometimes the quality was pristine, and sometimes it was muddy—but it was certainly the easiest option.

Props to my voice actors: Across the board, they were awesome.

Background music: I made this on no budget, right? I perused YouTube’s royalty-free audio library options until I found a suitable track (the track I used required no attribution, but the composer deserves a shout-out anyway for being sporting enough to put his/her music online for anybody’s free use: it was “Mob Battle” by Silent Partner). I also used one sound effect, the thunder clap at the beginning, from YouTube’s sound effects library.

I assembled the audio in Audacity, which I’d never used before. Great program. Robust, with lots of bells and whistles, and as I mentioned before… totally free. I wrote down all the time codes for each bit of dialogue from my .wmv file. Then I slapped each audio element—the background music, the thunder clap, each line of dialogue—on a separate track within a single Audacity file, then moved each element into the proper location based on the .wmv time codes. Once again, there was a lot of trial and error involved here. I faded the background music in and out as appropriate around the dialogue, adjusted volume levels, and called it good. When I was happy with it, I exported the complete audio track as a .wav file.

This is a glimpse of part of my messy, messy Audacity file. I suspect the sight of this would make seasoned audio professionals cringe at the half-assedness of my work.

When I had the complete audio track as a .wav file, and the complete video track (minus credits) as a .wmv file, I used Movie Maker to combine the two. Movie Maker is cheerful and user-friendly (it defaults to saving your video files as “My Movie”, if that gives you some idea of the friendliness) and, if you have Windows, free. I like all these things about Movie Maker. It is not, however, especially robust. This is why I mixed the audio in a separate program instead of trying to mix it all together in Movie Maker, which is possible, but not all that practical. Movie Maker is designed to handle only two audio tracks at once (narration and background music), whereas with Audacity, I had nineteen tracks going at the same time. On the plus side, adding credits in Movie Maker, which was my final step in this whole process, was a breeze.

I kept Movie Maker's default title of "My Movie", just because there's something endearingly idiotic about that.

When that was all done, all that was left was to save the finalized video as an .mp4 and upload it to YouTube.

Fun process. I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but as a first effort, it was a great learning experience. I’m looking forward to doing this for all of my other books as well.


Illesdan said…
I had to take vacation to find this article again, lol. I've been trying to find it again because a friend recently lost nearly three hours of animation work and was looking for a reliable program. I remember working with some programs much like the ones you used to make a amateur music video, but the programs I used are very old and on a laptop I will never connect to the internet since it has WinAmp on it. Now that I see what you used (and love the book video; came out slick!) I'll see if she's tried it or if she needs something else.
Morgan Richter said…
Oh, good! I hope it helps your friend a little. I'm not at all sure this was the best or simplest way to cut together a trailer, but it was the way that made the most sense for me with what I wanted to do and what I had to work with.
Illesdan said…
Came out better than my YouTube-banned music video. I never learned how to import over video, so I took over 1,400 still shots and compensated by making it look slo-mo. So, yeah, anything that actually moves and has the audio cuts you want impresses me, lol.

Morgan Richter said…
Illesdan -- yeah, this method really did work well for me, though it was a lot of trial and error. I ended up pretty pleased with the final result -- doing the bulk of it in PowerPoint gave me a lot of control over the timing of the cuts.

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